Professional Comparison and Identity Formation in the Age of Social Media
Have you ever consciously monitored your emotions and how you interact with others before and after using social media? Doing small experiments like this can tell you a lot about how, and even whether, the digital world affects you. I find myself turning to sociology to help reach some answers about how LinkedIn, and social media in general, may directly impact your sense of self and the meaning of your relationships.
One of my favorite courses that I’ve taken as a sociology student at the University of Washington was Introduction to Sociological Theory. The theoretical frameworks that we discussed in that class still stick with me, especially as I consider how humans function in a technologically-driven society. While reflecting on my own struggles with professional and academic comparison, I naturally frame my thinking of LinkedIn in a sociological way. LinkedIn is the only popular social media platform that identifies you by your career performance, and I believe that its design contributes to feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome in young professionals. My point with this writing is not to convince you of a certain perspective, but to contribute to your overall sense of awareness, and give you some tips on how to interact with professional social media platforms in a way that can protect and even bolster your confidence. Keep in mind as well, this analysis is based on my own experiences and emotions, and you might not share them. There is no “right” way to interact with social media, and you might have a different intention or experience than those described.
Your Resume: Gamified
Taking a close look at how LinkedIn has changed the meaning of professional development
The draw to join LinkedIn’s community is different from that of any other social networking platform — LinkedIn holds a practical monopoly on professional social networking, with over 700 million users. This unique foothold in the social media market leads to a unique recruitment method, which relies on feelings of obligation to join. With nothing but an Internet connection holding you back from the ever-increasing importance of networking, not joining LinkedIn means that you’re missing out on a free, global network of professionals that could connect you with just the right person to land your next opportunity.
Combined with its unique draw to membership, LinkedIn’s operations fundamentally differ from platforms like Instagram and Facebook. If you’re an avid user of the platform, there is an expectation of clinical accuracy when portraying your life and professional experience. There are no filters to hide behind when constructing your LinkedIn identity, just a uniform and unadorned fill-in-the-blank resume.
Further, the concept of “gamification” inevitably becomes intertwined in our discussion. Gamification refers to the adoption of game-like features to drive interest and engagement in a platform. Publicly-displayed follower counts, your profile view dashboard, and skill badges are all examples of gamification on LinkedIn. These statistics drive competition and increase platform usage as users try to one-up themselves and others. The key concept driving this gamification is that out of all the facets that comprise you as an individual, your performance on LinkedIn is theoretically hinged 100% on your accomplishments and success as a professional.
I believe it is this placing your worth and value into a public and private display of statistics that contributes to feelings of career inferiority and inadequacy in young professionals. Offline, your counselors and friends can assure you that everyone develops their careers at their own pace, that your peers’ successes do not define your own, and that failure is an important and necessary part of growth. But logging onto LinkedIn feeds you an opposing narrative. High numbers and more connections equate to increased time circulating the algorithm. The standardized profile of a successful peer spits out accomplishment after accomplishment, making you wonder — How did they score that internship? How were they able to balance all of those activities? Why haven’t I accomplished all of these things yet?
Viewing these thoughts and emotions through a sociological lens, we know that our self-concept is multifaceted and socially constructed. Which social identity you choose to perform in a particular scenario depends on your audience and what they will accept. The way you interact with your parents, for example, differs from the way you might interact with an acquaintance or a romantic partner. A public display of our identity, like a LinkedIn profile, often presents our “best” version of ourselves. Evidence of failures, uncertainties, and insecurities are scrapped in favor of a shiny, idealized public-facing profile. Presenting the best version of yourself isn’t necessarily a problem; in fact, it’s human nature to do so. But being aware of the discrepancy that may occur between your online idealized identity and your offline identity can be helpful to mitigate negative effects. Psychologist Tory Higgins hypothesized that when an identity discrepancy occurs between our actual self and our ideal self, we can experience dejection-related emotions such as dissatisfaction or inadequacy. Similarly, 20th century sociologist Erving Goffman theorized how performing ourselves inauthentically can lead to feelings of estrangement from the self, or “self-distantation.” This effect happens when the performer of a social identity also becomes the audience of this identity. For example, socially performing as the person that your idealized profile depicts, with no evidence of failure or weakness, can make you feel disconnected from yourself. Surrounding ourselves with the idealized selves of your friends, peers, and acquaintances can even further drive feelings related to imposter syndrome or inadequacy.
Quantifying the Unquantifiable
How computerizing society changes the meaning of relationships
Although LinkedIn presents an interesting case study because of its specialized purpose and target audience, it sparks an interesting conversation about the sociological effects of social media at large. One of the ideas I entertain frequently is how the distillation of human relationships to numbers can alter our perceptions of social life. I would argue that social relationships are things that do not naturally, neatly fit into quantifiable categories. You might count the number of people in your household as people you have relationships with…one, two, three, four. You might also count your partner, and the extended family you frequently visit…five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. But then what about your professors? The barista you exchange small talk with every morning? Simplifying your relationships to a binary system, as in the case with follower counts (follower versus non-follower), discredits the complexity of social life. Tallying up your numbers treats your relationship with your mother the same way it treats your relationship with a one-time acquaintance. According to a friend of mine, interactions on LinkedIn felt like “water-cooler conversations” — they lacked adequate depth and meaning to be effective for him professionally. According to an article based out of the University of Amsterdam, as a social media platform develops, “online connections no longer automatically [parallel] offline contacts, but [favor] weak and latent ties”. Maybe LinkedIn increases the number of professional connections you have, but the quality and effectiveness of those connections can suffer if you let it.
How I’ve Reconciled
How we can adapt to the changing formation of professional identities
I want to be very intentional with my words and note that in this particular scenario, I see no problem that needs to be solved, unlike my criticism of TikTok’s body-shaming algorithm and its acceptance by society. I do think it’s important, however, to recognize how professional identity development and networking are changing as a result of technology. Once we know how these changes might affect us individually, we can take some steps to adapt to shifting norms.
I know for me, one of the things I struggle with most is comparison. As I’ve gotten older, I strive for more professional accomplishments and accolades that I can populate my LinkedIn profile with. But one of my biggest insecurities is my lack of linear professional growth. I took several years to even decide what major to pursue in college, finally landing on Sociology with two minors in Informatics and Music, but am now considering shifting gears again as I prepare for graduate school. Seeing peers with linear, goal-oriented growth makes me feel unfocused and unaccomplished. In order to mitigate these feelings, I like to make a point to learn about the details about people’s journeys, including their failures and setbacks. Reading biographies can be helpful for this, like “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comics. This book offers several key takeaways that you can use in your own life, such as focusing on systems rather than goals. By refocusing your attention on your own process instead of others’ achievements, it’s less reasonable to compare yourself to others. I also co-produce a podcast called The Bored Student in which undergraduate students share their journeys, struggles, and accomplishments. We aim to purposefully push a greater sense of humanity into the professional narrative and build a community that helps students feel less alone. Being intentional in your media consumption by emphasizing the journey to success rather than the outcome can help remedy any dejection-like feelings you might have.
I hope you’ve taken something beneficial away from this article, whether it’s gaining a deeper understanding of how professional social media alters the meaning of our social connections or gives you an idea regarding how to improve your mental health while navigating the online world. Special thanks to Christine Leibbrand, PhD (Sociology) for her assistance in writing this article. Please feel free to reach out to me with any comments or questions.